As I stated in Part 1, the good people at my local airport misplaced my checked baggage from the outset. With limited communications available to me, it was a struggle to locate and transfer my gear to the event hotel. Following countless emails and with the help of our ground team though, my well-traveled North Face duffle appeared a few short hours before we were to set out. The delayed baggage only meant that I had to wear the same clothes for 6 days, as I carried-on all of my race kit. Obviously, the wise choice!
The now traditional Saturday morning event briefing and gear check went off without a hitch. I enjoyed a nice big breakfast just prior, as I knew it would be my last for some time. My gear runs on the very lean side, so I always get some odd looks during the gear check, since I carry so little. The final pack weight, sans water, came to 6.8kg (just under 15lbs). My goal had been 6.5kg, but adding some last minute calories to my week's allotment of 15,000 kcals made up the extra weight. Better to be on the safe side. With no snags or forgotten bits of gear, I retired to my room for a final rest, packed-up my gear to be stored for apres-race, and tried to get my mental focus on the week ahead, a tough assignment with all the chaos of day 1 departure.
Following a short transfer out of Bole and into the surrounding countryside, we quickly arrived at Camp 1. Our mobile village had been constructed on a flat plain at the feet of the surrounding Tian Shan mountains. The ground on which our tents had been pitched provided a preview of the terrain to come: hard-packed dirt filthy with sharp and abundant loose rock. I claimed my spot in our spacious, green tent and set myself to resting both my body and mind, the past week of travel obstacles having taken their toll on me.
Stage 1 was started under overcast but warm skies. Anticipation was running high through the camp and this spilled over into the quick initial pace off the line. However, after 10km of our total 40km for the stage, most had settled into their more realistic cadence and I began to pick my way through the line-up. The terrain was mostly undulating and uphill across a vast plain of loose grapefruit-sized stone. The rock soon gave way to a hard-packed and winding jeep track that ascended through a rather tight valley and into the surrounding range of hills. I ran with a few others for the first third of the course, but soon found myself quite alone as I neared the half. While I'm not a particularly fast runner in the flats, I find that I can grind out long uphills fairly well, giving me some much needed separation.
After passing the halfway point, I came into sight of Stefano, the heavily favored Italian runner. He waved me up and I joined him within a few minutes. We were to run the rest of the stage together, pushing each other along to the finish. Once together and after quickly passing through a small section of tarmac, we came upon the main challenge of the day, a steeply pitched ascent to a local outdoor temple. The rickety staircase that wound to the top was sketch, but it held. With legs screaming after plodding up the 1000 stairs, Stefano and I shot out through the rolling plain and on through the finish line together, positions 3, 4, and 5 close behind. Finishing as joint leader felt great and I didn't feel I'd overreached for day 1. We headed to camp 2 for some recovery under threatening skies.
Stage 2 can best be termed 'flat and fast.' The days terrain was a mostly flat and slightly upward rock-strewn 40km plain that skirted the foothills of the Tian Shan. My goal for this day, as it was for the week as a whole, was to attempt to always be building: slower, controlled starts that build over the distance and have a strong, fast finish. I let several of the lead pack go strong off the start, but I soon corralled them by the halfway point when I caught up to Stefano, my overall co-leader. We set off from CP 2 with the notion to press the pace on the others, each taking 5 minute turns to push. This only lasted a few rounds, as I began to battle some wicked cramping in my legs. I reluctantly, but wisely, let Stefano charge forward. The final leg of the stage was an excruciating 10km for me. I cruised into Camp 3 with my cardio intact and in 2nd position, but knowing that I would pay the price the next morning after enduring around 2 hours of severe cramping. I gave up 10 minutes to the now leader and relinquished my leader bib. My solace was the ice-cold river that flowed next to our camp. The alpine waters provided us all a nice but freezing bath. Threatening skies on the horizon promised to add an uninvited twist to what looked like a very challenging Stage 3 to come.
The start of Stage 3 was a painful one. My quads had been in contracture from the cramping for so long the previous day that they felt as if it was day 6 already. Unfortunately for me, today would see us climbing high into the mountains and I would need every ounce of leg strength that I could muster. We set off from camp with looming rain, but it cleared by the half. The grade had been arduous, always moving upward. Just beyond CP 2, we entered an absolutely beautiful gorge that I found reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Gorgeous evergreens, roaring water, and slopes as high as you could see. We traversed several cable bridges of rather dubious construction, then began the uphill scramble. Best analysis? Brutal. Hands and feet on the slope in some cases. I found myself foraging for fallen limbs to act as poles to assist me in the climb. Possibly 1.5 hours of scrambling brought me to the summit, where I was greeted by a crushing, hairpin downhill. Instead of fighting the mountain, I relaxed and focused only on my foot planting. To fight the slope is senseless and it always wins. I simply let fly and hoped to catch the lead pack that had gained ground on me during the ascent. Camp 4 was visible from the final CP of the day, though it was deceptively far and separated from me by an undulating plain filthy with the local poisonous fern, rock, and stray culverts cut into the landscape by monsoon force rain. Head down. Focus on breathing. Continue your cadence. Before long, I had reached the welcomed sound of drums and the end of the stage. Though I had given up yet another position (now in 3rd), I felt that I had completed the most difficult of the first 4 stages strongly and had plenty of gas in the tank for the shorter Stage 4. Following a quick stroll around camp to work the lactate out, it was straight to bed for me. One more stage to go before the long march.